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July 6, 2012 6:49 pm
After four hours of driving across flat, dusty plains and up hair-raising mountain roads, south India’s tea country looks like something from another world. It almost does the landscape an injustice to say that it is green, given the many shades of lush, verdant terrain.
Thousands of lines of carefully sculpted tea bushes roll across the hillsides in front of us, like a giant, unfolding, emerald mosaic. Low cottages dot the valley, and from time to time I catch sight of distant groups of gaily coloured tea pickers, high on the slopes above. Gazing out, and stuck for comparisons, I am reduced to Hollywood: the island from Jurassic Park; the forest in Avatar.
My partner and I are on our way to stay in two converted bungalows, first in Tamil Nadu then in the neighbouring state of Kerala. Built in the first half of the past century, bungalows such as these were once the jewels of Britain’s imperial tea plantations, where colonial estate managers and their families lived a life that was at once luxurious and isolated.
Today, the economy of these plateaus is changing, with fewer managers needed to run the area’s many tea factories. As a result, the bungalows are being renovated to provide luxury of a more modern sort: high-end holiday cottages. The second in which we are to stay, in particular, has been recently refurbished at a cost of $2.2m, and we are to be its first guests.
A driver is all but essential for such a trip – tea country has no railways and only a few rickety local buses (car hire is possible for foreigners, but not straightforward or popular). Ours picks us up at the airport to begin the drive from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu’s second-largest city.
He explains that the journey will culminate in a road with 40 hairpin bends, as we climb towards the town of Valparai, more than 1,000 metres above sea level in the heart of the Annamalai mountains. Sure enough, as the climb begins, roadside signs announce each in turn. As we go up we also get a first glimpse of the wildlife for which the area is renowned. Dozens of monkeys patrol the kerbside, while at one point a rare mountain goat, a nilgiri tahr, wanders out in front of us.
The first bungalow sits in the middle of the Stanmore estate, a working tea plantation about 12 miles outside Valparai. As we pull in, we see a green tin roof, a neat garden, and sweeping views of the valley below. Inside the furnishings seem to have changed little since the place was built by a British planter’s family in the 1930s, down to the charming, if spartan, period furniture. This feeling of stepping back in time is only reinforced by the friendly, if occasionally slightly overly attentive, house staff. There is a chef too, whose expansive meals are easily large enough for a party of eight, rather than just the two of us. But we don’t complain as we are greeted on the verandah with a plate of local snacks and pots of “factory fresh” tea. We take it Indian style: milky, with plenty of sugar.
Intrigued to learn a little more about the area’s history, I arrange later in the evening to have tea – what else? – with a local plantation manager, who has lived and worked in the area since childhood. As we talk, he hands me a dog-eared photocopy of a history book which explains how this once heavily forested region was first opened up in 1875, in advance of a proposed hunting trip for the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.
The trip was to be no small affair. More than 100 servants, about 150 “attendants on horse” and even a dozen “European postillions” were lined up. And while the hunt was ultimately cancelled, a base camp established in anticipation of the royal arrival became the region’s first settlement, and the starting point for the planting of hundreds of thousands of hardy tea bushes.
We rise early the next morning, preparing to set out for a hike around the local area. Just before we leave, a siren screams out across the valley, a signal to the local tea workers that work is to begin. Our exploration begins in more relaxed fashion, with a packed breakfast at another of the bungalows on the estate, next to the start of the trail we are taking.
Our real aim for the day is to spot one of the herds of wild elephants that roam nearby, our hopes raised by frequent road signs reading: “Elephants have right of way.” As if to whet our appetite, our guide entertains us with stories about buildings on nearby plantations that have recently been damaged by more than a dozen of the giant visitors.
But while India’s largest animal proves elusive, we do suddenly find ourselves surrounded by another local favourite: a troupe of lion-tailed macaques, endangered monkeys found only in this part of southern India. Some clatter around on the tin roof above, while one intrepid male makes a decent fist of commandeering our car.
Elsewhere, we spot a handful of malabar giant squirrels in the trees above, an unusual and charming furry animal, about the size of a small dog. Later in the day we cross paths with a herd of gaur, a hefty species of wild bison with impressive curly horns that come together over its head in the shape of a heart. When not animal-watching, we walk contentedly through the sunny tea fields, occasionally chancing across groups of pickers, and return pleasantly tired, ready for another large meal.
On the third day we’re up early again to bundle our belongings into the car for the trip’s second long drive, across the border into Kerala. The trip takes us back down to the plains, passing palm-tree forests and banana groves, before climbing back up to the hill station of Munnar and our destination, the Talayar Valley bungalow.
The scenery is subtly different here, craggier and more mountainous, but the second bungalow looks much like the first, on the outside at least, right down to the green roof and rose garden. Inside, however, the contrast is dramatic, with its period feel tastefully but comprehensively updated, creating a look that is more high-end boutique hotel than colonial family residence. Our guide explains that the just-completed renovation took more than two years. Under the direction of conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, the rooms have been given contemporary touches while still paying homage to the traditional turn of the century planter’s bungalow. Its owner, the Woodbriar Group, currently has eight more bungalows in the process of restoration.
On our final day I make a trip to Munnar town, which, apart from a small tea museum, has little to detain visitors for long. There is more fun to be had at the High Range club, an old tea planters’ club, where we have lunch. The bar is decorated with trophies from imperial sporting endeavours. One wall is even given over to the hats and pith helmets of those who worked in the area, alongside the heads of many of the animals they shot.
But while the town provides a brief diversion, we quickly want to be back in the lush, rolling countryside outside it. Only then does the true charm of the area – that feeling of being somewhere stuck in another age – gradually return.
It is a feeling oddly confirmed by the tea plants themselves, which turn out to have remarkable longevity – a sign in one field informs us that it had been planted in 1929. It’s a thought that stays with me as we sit out in the garden on our final night, enjoying the cool weather and watching the sun dip down over the tea-covered hills. As the green of the valley turns a misty blue in the distance, it seems for a moment as if we are looking out over history itself.
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent
James Crabtree was a guest of Transindus (www.transindus.co.uk), which offers a six-night trip, including four nights at the tea estates mentioned, from £580 per person, or £1,175 including flights from London
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